It has only been three weeks since Atlético Ottawa and Pacific FC met on the turf at TD Place in Ottawa, and on Sunday afternoon, the two sides met once again for another heavyweight clash. With Pacific leading the league table and Ottawa sitting in third, Atlético had the chance to close the gap to the defending champions to just one point. In their last meeting, Pacific eeked out a win despite being outshot 23-8, with shots on target favouring Ottawa 11-2.
In this meeting, the story looked much the same for the majority of the match. Ottawa dominated the ball, but couldn’t finish. That was true until finally, Malcolm Shaw broke the deadlock in the 62nd minute, giving Ottawa a 1-0 lead they would hold until late in the contest. Disaster struck for the home side, when in the 83rd minute, Josh Heard made the best of a chance, beating the Ottawa keeper and knotting the game at one.
With a draw looking like the likely outcome, Atlético picked up the pace and move the ball upfield quickly. Zach Verhoven, formerly of Pacific, made the most of his opportunity after being subbed on with under half an hour to play. Already with a yellow card to his name, Verhoven found himself in the box with only the keeper to beat, and bested former Ottawa Fury keeper, Callum Irving to restore Ottawa’s lead, and send the home fans home happy.
“I’m just so happy we won,” said Verhoven. “I think it was one of our best performances as a group, so just getting the three points in the atmosphere we had today was unbelievable. To come on and play a role for the team means a lot to me, individually.”
Unquestionably, the result is frustrating for Pacific. They had already fought off a vicious Ottawa attack once this season, and after Heard’s late goal, they looked almost guaranteed a point heading back to Vancouver Island. It wasn’t to be, however, and now Ottawa draws within a single point in the table, with one less match played.
“It is frustrating to let that go,” said Heard. “It’s a long season and we have been in first for nine weeks now. We’ve been doing well, and there’s a target on our back. We knew that coming in today. We’ve got a full season ahead, and they have to come to play us at home two more times. There’s a lot of work to do, but I like where we are at.”
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It’s safe to say that Atlético has been turning some heads in the past few weeks. Three consecutive wins, including this one over Pacific, have helped Ottawa climb their way up the standings.
“I think that it was so important to win,” said Atlético Ottawa head coach Carlos Gonzalez. “At the end of the day, the work that we are doing for the past three months is paying off. It’s a big win, three in a row, with this one against last year’s champion. It’s a win that I think sends messages to everyone, to us, and to the rest of the league.”
Ottawa had the added challenge of coming off short rest after a game in Winnipeg earlier in the week. Atlético pulled off a 1-0 win over Valour FC in that contest, getting a little bit of revenge over the team that beat them 6-1 earlier in the season, but it had them on the back foot in terms of rest on Sunday afternoon. Thankfully for Gonzalez, he has plenty of depth to turn to in moments like these.
“It’s a key point,” Gonzalez said. “To keep the squad motivated, with a good dynamic, and feeling they can be important for the team in any way, starting or coming off the bench, I think it’s a key point. We knew that after playing in Winnipeg it was going to be very important to manage the load, to have some fresh players from the start, and to have others who can impact the game from the bench.”
There was also a bit of a formation change for Atlético on Sunday afternoon, and Gonzalez says that is thanks to previous experience, and using that to dictate how his team should play in any given scenario.
“We are working on different systems, and different ways to play,” Gonzalez said. “We knew that in some moments, we were going to play in more of a defensive block in a 4-4-2, other moments a 4-5-1, others a 4-1-4-1. We will keep adapting the teams depending on the demands of the game.”
“I think that this is so important because we are playing in a league of eight teams,” Gonzalez continued. “We know each other very well. We need to have the capacity to surprise them in some ways, so now we are modifying some things. Little by little, we are getting into the best performance of the team.”
When Pacific came to Ottawa a handful of weeks ago, they credited their championship experience as one of the key factors. Atlético doesn’t have that yet, but they did use that game as a learning experience, and used it as both fuel and knowledge to steal a win out of a situation where a draw seemed likely.
“Each game, we are better managing the key moments,” Gonzalez said. “It’s about experience, it’s about improving. It’s true that in that last game, we deserved a little bit more, but today, we deserved what we had.”
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